Could Midwest drought cause global crisis?

Two of the 3 most costly disasters since 1980 have been droughts, and the fallout from ruined crops could go beyond the financial.

By The Fiscal Times Aug 1, 2012 9:25AM
By Suzanne McGeeThe Fiscal Times

The news from the U.S. Department of Agriculture wasn’t quite as it bad as it could have been. But the weekly report indicating that less than a quarter of this year’s corn crop can be rated as being in "good" or "fair" condition, compared with 62% at this time last year, was enough to send prices of both corn and soybeans back toward record highs.

That’s great news for investors. Agricultural commodities have handily beaten most other asset classes so far this year as a place where investors have been able not only to generate positive returns but to capture gains of 20% or more, depending on their ability to buy into the right contract at the right time and roll that contract over when it approaches expiry.

The cause underpinning the gains is, of course, the drought that has swept through most of the mainland United States. Even last week’s storms didn’t leave enough moisture behind them to help get the corn and soybeans through the critical next week or two of their growing season. Some regions didn’t see much rain at all, including parts of major corn-growing states like Iowa. There’s a bit of wiggle room left for soybeans, but for much of the corn crop, even if the rest of the summer is a rainy washout for vacationers, it will simply be too late for farmers and their crops to get any benefit.

It’s the eighth week running that the weekly USDA crop condition report has cautioned that the state of this year’s harvest is deteriorating. The last time the agency was this bearish on crop conditions was all the way back in 1988, and commodity analysts are drawing ominous comparisons between the summer of 2012 and epic droughts of the kind experienced all the way back in the 1950s.

Obviously, this is devastating news for many farmers. But those of us living in urban areas and whose wellbeing isn’t tied to the farm economy or to crops shouldn’t think that the impact on us will be confined to paying a little bit more for products containing corn (an astonishing array of things fall into that category) or meat (because a hefty portion of the corn crop is devoted to feeding animals). Firstly, there’s the impact on government finances to consider, on both a local and state level: As meteorologist Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground noted recently, two of the three most costly disasters since 1980 have been droughts, not the more dramatic events such as hurricanes or floods.

And since those droughts hit in the 1980s, the nature of commodity markets has changed. Once the domain of big agricultural firms like Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), farmers and others who needed to hedge the risks associated with volatile crop prices ahead of the growing season (along with a handful of commodity trade advisors who ran funds that invested in agriculture futures along with scores of other listed derivatives products) today’s commodity markets are full of speculators.

The impact of the latter on the price of crude oil has at times been dramatic and, some critics argue, has distorted the “real” price of the fuel. Without getting into yet another debate over the merits or woes associated with having speculators playing such an important role in shaping prices (they may make price moves more dramatic, but also can enhance liquidity), the fact remains that the “specs” can produce exaggerated gains.

Nor is the fallout only a matter of Americans paying $10 more on our average weekly grocery bill. (Not forgetting that for some, that, too, is an intolerable burden.) Because what is going on isn’t confined to North America; other grain-growing parts of the world, such as Russia and the Ukraine, are battling their own drought conditions, while European farmers are contending with the opposite problem, too much rain.

The result could be another food crisis that leaves the world’s poorest people unable to afford to purchase increasingly scarce and costly food, as the World Bank’s president, Jim Yong Kim, warned yesterday.

While the World Bank didn’t predict any major grain shortages, and noted that lower fertilizer and energy costs might help ease the burden of planting next year’s crop for farmers who have seen their incomes plunge as the crops have failed, even short-term problems can have a lasting impact on everything from health to education. (If a family can’t afford food, one of the first things they may stop spending on is a child’s school uniform, for instance.)

Ultimately, high food prices can prove to be politically destabilizing. Citizens whose governments can’t afford to subsidize food supplies may become restless – indeed, some analysts say that soaring food costs in 2007 and again in 2010 (along with corruption) were major triggers for the revolts in countries like Tunisia and Yemen that led to the Arab Spring in early 2011.

Monitoring the issues associated with corn and soybean prices is a vastly more complicated process than it was the last time that a drought of this size swept across the United States. Back then, more than a third of the corn harvest wasn’t being funneled into producing ethanol or other biofuels, leaving less available for food needs. Nor were as many investors putting as significant a chunk of their assets in what today we refer to as emerging markets, some of which will feel the impact of those higher commodity prices.

What, for instance, might happen in China if a generation that has become accustomed to eating more protein – meat several times a week instead of once or twice a month – has to go back to going meatless as the cost of animal feed skyrockets? It isn’t just the Midwestern farmers who will be anxiously watching the Weather Channel for a sign of an end to the drought.

Suzanne McGee is a columnist at The Fiscal Times. Subscribe to The Fiscal Times' free newsletter.

More from The Fiscal Times

Aug 1, 2012 12:38PM

We  the taxpayers subsidize the farmer when they ship there grain overseas and foreign countries

get a hidden benefit. Let us stop this for exports and put a temporary halt to ethanol at the pump

and maybe the consumer will not be hit as hard in there pocket.  Does anyone actually know the

cost of producing ethanol for gasoline putting aside the enviormental benefit?


Aug 1, 2012 2:16PM
 "In spite of all man's technological accomplishments, he still owes his existence to four inches of top soil and the fact that it rains"
Aug 1, 2012 2:12PM

I'm a farmer ......Its taken this long to realize maybe this drought could have a major impact on our economy ???   Just consider a depression. 

We still want cheap fuel.... hence ethenol.     Why use a high quality food such as corn to go into the fuel tank ?   Its a high quality fuel but not an efficient fuel !

The cheaper fuel cost are ...the more we use.   Its time to have a wake up call !


Aug 1, 2012 1:34PM
Only if we continue the complete idiocy of demanding corn based ethanol, with government subsidies, be added to our gasoline pool.  It was an idea that had no science or economics when it came to pass and is worse today. 
Aug 1, 2012 3:10PM
God bless the US and all the farmers that grow the food to feed all your fat asses!
Aug 1, 2012 3:00PM

You would think the U.S. would stop corn/grain exports when we are in the middle of a depression and the worst crop failure in decades. I mean a little relief for our citizens would be called for here, the president should call for suspension of grain exports until the crop situation impoves. Russia did a few years back but do you think this Wall Street owned government will?


Take grain off the futures market this year and oil. Tell the middle east a barrel of oil for a bushel of corn..fair trade at last!

Aug 1, 2012 2:10PM

Its already bad. My wife and I run a no-profit horse rescue. We can't find hay locally in southwest Missouri and the price of grain will soon be over $10 for a 50 pound bag when it use to be $6. Food for human consumption, as well as, cat food, dog food or what ever will soar. Now is the time to panic.

   I always said I would never euthanize an animal and hopefully we won't have to. But better to put them down than let them starve. Better stop worring about how your going to fill your gas tank and start worrying about how to feed yourself and your families.

Aug 1, 2012 1:46PM
i certainly hope it causes a global crisis, we all need a good shakeup & the more crooked governments (including ours) that topple the better off we will all be !!!!
Aug 1, 2012 2:05PM
Well, if they quite wasting good corn crops on that stupid FlexFuel, which no one uses except NASCAR, they could feed the world.  Now the EPA wants to put 15% of that crap in our gas, instead of the 10% that's in there now, research shows it will destroy all small engins, espically motorcycles.  What a bunch of jerks. 
Aug 1, 2012 4:41PM
We should not be promoting ethanol. It uses about as much energy to make as we get from it. Use another alternative fuel like LP Gas.

Also, yes, it is getting hotter. But, what is causing it? There was severe heat problems during dinosaur times. Was it from the dinosaurs driving gas hogs? Or maybe it was from dinosaur poop. We really do not know. I do think that we need to be as green as possible. But, we must be reasonable.

Aug 1, 2012 2:31PM
Our government and our media have lost contact with the facts. They feel that there is only one part to the economy and that is consumerism. There is no hope for the existing government to actually understand our economy. They have no background or knowledge concerning economy. They just want to issue the next feel good self important phony ad. The actual supply of products is a great mystery to them.
Aug 1, 2012 3:32PM
No if for once the united states took care of our people first like every other country does.
Aug 1, 2012 3:10PM

It is not just corn prices that will be affected, chicken, eggs, cereals, bread along with beef and pork will be affected. Once corn goes up producers will look at other grains to feed their livestock, also effected by the drought, wheat, oats, barley will go up in cost, driving the prices of the foods produced from them up as well.


Grain farmers will have fewer crops to sell but may still turn higher profits from those crops, the dairy farmers, feed lots, hog farms and egg producers will be the ones who struggle to survive.


And before someone start spouting, eat vegan it is better, you are in the same boat as us meat eaters, the drought will affect you just as much. We all will feel the pain, from bread, T-bones, to tofu it will all cost more.


It was just last year that heavy snow melt and rain washed out the Corn Belt (bet they wished they had reservoirs to store that water now) this year it is drought. Grains can be stored in surplus so can water I think it is about time to build reservoirs, stop using corn for fuel, build our grain reserves back up after the drought, and start working together to make our country stronger.

The Russians froze grain exports when this happened to them. Why can`t we do the same?
Aug 1, 2012 4:18PM

Problem with veganism or setting up a home garden is there has still been no water here in the midwest with cities and counties rationing water for use to a fines level if caught watering gardens(takes about 250 gal/per day to effectively water a 100'x100' garden) so if no water no garden.  Our soybean crop is flowering but the blooms drying up dropping off before the plant has pollenated so you may be eating last years beans until they are gone and then what?  Can't manufacture food yet, still have to grow it and the rest of the world needs to eat too.


This is not restricted to US corn, the truth is it is hitting all grains crops, all livestock ventures as they rely on grains for feed and then the vegetable crops as gardens cannot get enough water either.  Wake up people, this is far larger than you are considering.

Aug 1, 2012 3:09PM
"Two of the 3 most costly disasters since 1980 have been droughts, the third most costly disaster was the election of Obama Yo Mama 
Aug 1, 2012 3:16PM
  Just the beginning, more to come. We are going to start complaining that the price of food is going through the roof, what's that going to do for the economy? I have also noticed yesterday that India's  power outage (670,000,000 people without power), that is more than twice the US's population in approximately a forth of the land size of the US, not much room left for farming. Look at India & China, the most populated areas in the world are going to need more and more food and water as there land becomes more and more contaminated and unfit for farming, water is already in short supply, and now power issues, whats next? There will probably be war for these items soon over there. Food, water could be more precious than gold.  I don't even need to talk about climate change. Be ready for anything.

Aug 1, 2012 2:44PM
Welp, it looks like we're all going to have to become cannibals.  I say we start with the Kardashians and start working our way down (up?) the reality TV ladder.
Aug 1, 2012 3:44PM

I am not here just to push for a change in laws BUT , If they would get their head out and look ahead to see that if cannabis laws were changed we could reestablish and revitalize the Industrial Hemp industry in this country , that the USA was originally founded on , and relied on for most everything from food ,to clothes and meds !


Hemp takes less , to give more , than beans & corn ,    ** wake up , and speak up America **

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